Can the history of American architecture be reduced to a listicle? Of course it can. Thankfully, 10 Buildings that Changed America, an hour-long documentary airing on PBS on Sunday, doesn't quite descend to the level of Buzzfeed. Instead, 10 Buildings is breezy, informative, noncontroversial, and probably best used as an introduction to architecture for students.
In that sense, it reminds me of the Great Quarterbacks of Pro Football series from Scholastic I used to read and reread as a kid: compact capsule biographies larded with key facts and useful marginalia. (Did you know that Pat Haden was a Rhodes Scholar? That Jim Plunkett was raised by two blind parents?) The same treatment is in effect here—although few will be as obscure to practitioners or scholars or even viewers. We learn that architect Albert Kahn was able to have a durable relationship with automaker Henry Ford, even though the former was Jewish and the latter was on record as being virulently anti-Semitic, and that Phyllis Lambert, the daughter of Seagram's CEO Samuel Bronfman, took an active hand in selecting architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design her father's New York headquarters.
Host Geoffrey Baer doesn't narrate a best-buildings slideshow, but something a little more interesting: a list of structures that signaled important changes not just in architectural practice but in the way life is lived in the United States. Iconic structures such as the Woolworth Building and Falling Water don't make the cut—although they show up on a web-only list of also-rans—because the show is really focused on establishing who did something first, and who did it right.
So it's Thomas Jefferson's State Capitol building (1788) in Richmond, Va., that gets the nod to represent the early days of the Republic, for establishing the Neoclassical model as standard for government buildings. While the building wasn't built to his specifications, the scholars in the documentary credit the work as a declaration of architectural independence from the old world—a provocative assertion, considering that Jefferson envisioned the capitol as a note-for-note cover version of the Maison Carrée in Nimes, France. Still, it's a useful way of eliding a hundred years of American architectural history. Boston's Trinity Church (1877) comes in for the same treatment, with H.H. Richardson's building standing in for the entire Romanesque revival. The skyscraper movement is seen through the lens of Louis Sullivan's Wainwright building in St. Louis. As critic Paul Goldberger explains in the segment, "Height was not just a fact, it was also an aesthetic idea." Baer does a good job explaining how the building is structured to create a sense of imposing height, while retaining human scale. From there, history begins to compress. Later in the documentary, the Seagram Building (1958) comes in for similar treatment, positioning the iconic Ludwig Mies van der Rohe skyscraper as the grandfather of modernist buildings set on visionary plaza. Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House (1910) makes an appearance, seemingly in part to offer up clips of a memorable Wright television interview in which the elder statesman intones about his work like a latter-day Denethor of Gondor.
With changes in industry and demographics, new kinds of structures become increasingly influential, Baer argues. Albert Kahn's Highland Park Ford Plant (1910), now a decaying hulk representing post-industrial blight, allowed the auto company to put Henry Ford's dream of a moving assembly line into practice. As private cars moved people out of cities and into suburbs, the shopping mall was invented to serve them.
And so the viewer is conveyed like so many postwar American families from downtown Detroit to suburban Minneapolis: There, in Edina, Minn., Victor Gruen envisioned the Southdale Center as a socialist experiment to bring people in far-flung communities together. The undulating, magical Dulles Terminal (1962) and its mobile lounges never evolved as the dynamic social hub that Eero Saarinen envisioned, any more than Gruen's shopping mall served to limit the isolating effects of sprawl. Arguably, Dulles has even lost its influence as a transit hub, since changes brought on by heightened security have transformed the way people experience air travel—and not just by eliminating those people-movers.
The Vanna Venturi House (1964) with its stairway to nowhere and ersatz chimney makes the case for surprise and illogic in architecture. Robert Venturi, FAIA, discusses the building with wife and longtime collaborator Denise Scott Brown in the documentary (although the Vanna Venturi House is one project that precedes their parternship). Critic Reed Kroloff appraises the postmodernist legacy, saying that it led to a "God-awful wedding cake imitation of history made to look quasi-historical or worse, abstracted into some kind of cartoon version of history." As this quote plays out, we're treated to a slow shot of the façade of the United Building in Chicago. Sorry, Ricardo Bofill!
While 10 Buildings would benefit from a few more such quality burns, as the pros will tell you. And a little less of Frank Lloyd Wright's ghostly kinescopic presence. But the documentary does what it sets out to do: It offers an easily digestible if highly skewed survey of the American architectural landscape. It could be worse. In fact, it could be the 10 worst.
Ten Buildings that Changed America premieres on Sunday, May 12, at 10 p.m. Eastern Time on PBS.